Hezbollah-led protesters camp out in Beirut

  • World
  • Saturday, 02 Dec 2006

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah-led opposition camped out in central Beirut on Saturday on the second day of protests to demand the resignation of the U.S.-backed government. 

Protesters pitched tents near central Beirut's Martyrs' Square and on streets leading to the government's headquarters, where hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters rallied on Friday to demand the government quit. 

Protesters set up tents in the Martyrs' Square near the government headquarters in central Beirut December 2, 2006. Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah-led opposition camped out in central Beirut on Saturday on the second day of protests to demand the resignation of the U.S.-backed government. (REUTERS/ Sharif Karim)

Hezbollah, a Shi'ite Muslim group backed by Syria and Shi'ite Iran, wants to topple what it calls a U.S. government in Lebanon. The anti-Syrian politicians who dominate cabinet say the opposition are attempting a coup. 

"No matter how long they stay in the street ... this will not bring down the government of (Prime Minister) Fouad Siniora," Sunni Muslim leader Saad al-Hariri, who backs Siniora, told Al Hurra television late on Friday. 

The demonstrators imposed a blockade on the government offices on Friday, but later eased it after contacts between opposition leaders and Arab diplomats, a senior opposition source said. "The government received our message," he said. 

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, an Arab diplomatic heavyweight, told Siniora and ministers with him in the government headquarters that his country supported them, Siniora's office said. 

Saudi Arabia would not accept any deterioration in the security situation, Abdullah said during a phone call. 

Scores of soldiers have cordoned off the government offices with barbed wire and metal barriers. 

"The biggest referendum and mass gathering in the history of Lebanon against the outsider government," the pro-opposition Ad Diyar's front page headline read on Saturday. "The coup on its first day - a one-party direction with no wide political scope," read pro-government Al Mustaqbal. 


Although the dispute is political, many Lebanese fear the situation could spark sectarian violence. Tension between Sunnis and Shi'ites is high, as is bad feeling between Christians who support leaders allied to the rival camps. 

Hundreds of supporters of Hezbollah and its allies -- the Shi'ite Muslim Amal Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement of Christian leader Michel Aoun -- were stretched out on the pavement wrapped in blankets or huddled around camp fires keeping warm in the morning chill. 

"We're here to bring down the government, if today doesn't get a result, then we'll stay till the day after and the day after. We're prepared to stay here for months," said Aoun supporter Ramzi Ainesy, 36, as he sipped his coffee. 

Hezbollah has been at loggerheads with Siniora's government over what it says was its failure to back the group during the July-August war with Israel. 

Six opposition ministers quit the cabinet last month after the collapse of talks on giving them a greater say in government. The cabinet was further weakened by the Nov. 21 assassination of anti-Syrian minister Pierre Gemayel. 

The anti-Syrian camp accuses the opposition of trying to undermine the government to derail an international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, whose killing in 2005 many blame on Damascus. 

Syria denied involvement but was forced to pull its troops out of Lebanon in April 2005 by international pressure led by the United States and France and huge anti-Syrian protests. 

A U.N. inquiry has implicated Syrian and Lebanese security officials in the killing. "Hezbollah and Amal are making themselves defenders of the murderers of Rafik al-Hariri," Saad al-Hariri, the former prime minister's son, told Al Hurra. 

French Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal suggested on Friday that France talk to Syria in a bid to reduce tensions in Lebanon, going against the policy of French President Jacques Chirac. 

(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy) 

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